Your Public Relations Can be Measured at the Cash Register
If you ask a fellow dealer how his public relations program is working, he will probably say that he doesn't have one. However, after further discussion, he will admit that what he meant was that he doesn't have any formal public relations program.
This insistence that the store or firm doesn't have a public relations program indicates that computer dealers and value-added resellers are unaware that their day-to-day contacts are actually PR activities. Such activities determine what people think of you, which goods you sell, and what kind of service you provide. In the final analysis, these contacts can determine whether or not a firm survives, and how well it succeeds.
Today, product costs are fairly uniform. And since our society is such a mobile one, people think nothing of driving 20 or 30 miles to look at systems, furniture, or software products they're purchasing for their business.
The retailer who pays attention to his or her public relations will be the one who benefits, not only in stature within the community, but also in sales. Retailers have an advantage over most businesses in that they can influence public opinion with every contact at the actual point of purchase. If the store or VAR integrator has good public relations, it stands to gain considerably.
Public relations isn't a mysterious process. In the business systems market, it's just plain roll-up-your-sleeves introspection and corrective actions which involve every member of the organization. If a person is about to purchase a desk, file cabinets, a computer, disk drive, card, software, or a total system in your city, he or she will prefer to buy from a firm that is well known and respected. Therefore, your goodwill, or favorable "image", directly influences sales.
Okay, so public relations is important to your organization. The key to how good your PR program will be is to determine exactly where your organization is going and where you want it to go. Do you want to sell only to individuals or to the business community? In the business community, will you target large or small businesses? Will you go after lawyers, dentists, ad agencies, contractors, or other markets?
Whatever your objectives, spell them out and then tailor your PR program to help you attain those long-term objectives. Your next task will be to define your audiences. These include employees, customers, prospective customers, suppliers, and even the government.
After identifying the people you want to reach, you have to decide how to reach them. Obviously, the media selected depends on your audience and the message you are trying to convey.
Regardless of your objectives, it is imperative that you schedule your activities for six months to a year, so you can evaluate the program and its effect. Once this is done, make certain that every member of the organization clearly understands the PR program and what it is supposed to accomplish. Without 100% cooperation, understanding, and support, the program is doomed to failure.
Here's a basic public relations guide. It doesn't contain all the answers, but it does provide a basic framework you can use on which to build your program. Each of the points which follow will have some kind of influence on people who are in a position to buy or recommend your products and services. And it will assist the store front operator, as well as the value added reseller or niche marketer.
The people you work with are your most important audience, as well as your most important PR vehicle. Your employees reflect your organization in their attitudes and actions. Without their enthusiasm and support your public relations will suffer, and there's nothing you can do about it.
Here are some quick facts to remember:
- Ensure that your salary and employee benefits programs compare favorably with other firms in the community. Take genuine interest in your employees and their problems. If it's necessary to discharge or layoff an employee, explain the situation thoroughly to him or her. Keep your people informed of goals, problems, and the firm's position at all times.
- Encourage your employees to take advantage of special education facilities and to become involved in community activities. Keep your employees informed about new product lines so they can better advise customers.
- Have an effective suggestion system for your employees. This can produce labor-saving, merchandising, and promotional ideas for the store. It also permits you to remain aware of employees' attitudes.
The objective of your employee relations program will be to make certain that your employees are satisfied, happy, well-trained, and well-informed. If they aren't, your customers will soon know it. The employees are a vital part of your business, and their sphere of influence is extensive. If they think your organization is progressive and efficient, has positive and enlightened policies, has merchandise which is priced fairly and widely accepted, then your customers and the community will also.
A satisfied customer talks a little...a dissatisfied customer talks a lot. The satisfied customers aren't always vocal about how great you are, but they do recommend you if they are asked. However, the dissatisfied customer can't wait to tell everyone he or she encounters about the treatment they received from your store. So, here are some pointers to remember in your customer relations:
- Ensure prompt service, and if delays occur, notify the customer immediately, telling them why there will be a delay. Make certain your employees treat customers not as an interruption of their work, but as the purpose of it. Make certain customer requests are answered promptly, completely, and courteously.
- Make every effort to handle complaints and adjustments promptly. Be fair in all settlement and complaint actions. When your establishment is at fault, quickly assume the blame a short-term loss can be a long-term gain. Live up to the spirit as well as the letter of your business agreements.
If your firm is to be successful within a community, you have a responsibility to make certain the community is successful. Without this involvement neither one will survive. Here are some do's and don'ts to consider in your community relations efforts:
- See that your firm is represented in and active in programs designed for civic betterment, even if there is no personal gain involved. Contribute your business know-how, facilities, and time to make civic undertakings a success.
- See that your firm participates in the recognized worthy charity drives in your community. Keep out of controversial community issues, but be ready to lead in suggesting or sponsoring any worthwhile civic project.
Naturally, there are some points to consider in your manufacture/distribution relationships. There are some items you can get form them to use in your store's public relations program
First of all, let's consider your supplier relations. Too often, stores lose good or "exclusive" relationships because of management's lack of interest in the supplier until it's too late. Therefore, it is important to give the same degree of loyalty to your suppliers that you expect from them. While proper handling of collections is important, so is the proper handling of payables.
This past year, with money as tight as it was, many dealers were caught in a cash flow bind. The stores that ignored suppliers and the cash flow problem found themselves in a very perilous position.
However, managers who faced the problem, working with suppliers' accounting departments to set up payment schedules and discuss the financial problem, found assistance. Accounts receivable departments are not made up of people ready to put a lien on your operation. But, just like you, they have a responsibility to keep their firm profitable.
However, supplier relations are to two-way street for the retailer who knows how to use his manufacturers. Manufacturers have a responsibility to help you grow and they will if you ask for assistance. Manufacturers and their suppliers develop considerable promotional and technical information which can make your selling effort easier. Here are some things you should do:
- Check and see if special cooperative advertising and publicity support are available on a new line you are carrying. At the very least, you should be able to obtain product photos and news releases on the product which can be adapted for local newspapers.
- Make certain you obtain complete product information for your sales staff so that they can recommend the product properly. Obtain thorough operation, technical, and service information and instructions.
- Request all of the point-of-sale materials possible to help make your selling job a little easier. When you encounter a unique or unusual customer problem or complaint, contact your company representative and get his assistance and advice in handling the problem. The manufacturer is as responsible as you are in handling complaints and adjustments. Explore the possibility of setting up special events in your community with your manufacturer's representative.
There are many opportunities for the alert computer retailer or consultant to obtain editorial coverage. Get to know home, science, business, and city editors of local newspapers and find out what information they want and need. Publicity can include:
- Special events
- New personnel
- Business applications news
- Employee events
- Company history
- Store, department openings
- Special store services
- Public service events, projects, tie-ins with national organizations or public service projects
- Consumer information
Here are some basic principles of good publicity that you can use to great advantage, regardless of your operations size:
- Make the community's familiarization of your store's name your primary objective.
- Concentrate on working with newspapers, radio, and TV stations, as well as local and regional magazines in your trading area. Publicity outside the area will be of little assistance, and probably won't be used by the media no matter how much material you send them.
- Good publicity springs from activity, so do things that make news. Work on news making activities, talk before groups, and be active in community activities. For business publicity, do things that are different, such as offering free training seminars with installations, conducting computer application/operation educational workshops, or carrying out programs of office design and efficient work flow.
- Develop a sense for news. Many events and projects which come up normally can be developed into news. Always be aware of your activities, and encourage your employees to feed you information which might be developed into editorial copy.
- Whenever possible, include a photo with a story sent to an editor. Naturally, the photo should be clear and sharp and have as much reader appeal as possible. Each picture must have a caption which is written on a separate piece of paper and attached to the edge of the picture so it can be removed without damaging the photo.
- Publicity doesn't compete with or replace your advertising. Instead, it extends your promotion. Everything you send out should be "real" news. When you give an item to an editor, don't ask him or her when they are going to run it. They are professional, so let them do their own job. Badgering an editor is the easiest and fastest path to getting your information in the wastebasket.
- For your publicity program to be effective you should have imagination, be alert, and work at it. You'll really expand your merchandising effort at very little expense.
In addition to these general guidelines, we would like to suggest a few projects you might consider for your operation which could bolster your sales and growth.
Target Business Seminars
In working with our manufacturing clients, we've found that the most successful types of seminars are those tailored to specific market segments. That is, seminars tailored to accountants, lawyers, administrative management, facilities personnel, and similar groups that have common problems and interests.
Take a look around your community and sub-divide your market into identifiable market segments. Then, put together a seminar program for each with applications examples and information tailored to their needs.
For example, the legal profession will make extensive use of work processing with lighter use of accounting and inventory systems. Accountants, on the other hand, make extensive use of accounting systems with light use of word processing and almost no use of inventory systems.
Identify the needs of each market segment. If you don't know them, talk with someone in each profession and learn about their business form their point of view. Then put together a program that meets that profession's short and long-range goals and needs.
These special events will be of material assistance to your public relations and marketing pograms. The events are newsworthy and benefit the community. From the standpoint of public relations, these are the two ingredients editors will consider when they devote editorial space to your special events.
But don't think you have to do these types of special events all by yourself. Manufacturers, distributors, and suppliers have reams of literature. Many have special slide presentations. Still others have tailored demonstration equipment and programs just for such events.
There is even the possibility that if the concepts are carefully thought-out and presented, suppliers can see the value of such projects in other market areas. That means they may apply some of their own talent to the project and, in fact, produce the supportive materials, slides, foils, and similar items for you. They're interested in selling their products, and that means servicing the dealers who know how to make sales happen that should be you.
It's Your Program
As a dealer, you already have a public relations program. It's impossible for you to stay in business without relationships with employees, stockholders, customers, prospects, suppliers, and the community at large. Those firms that take the organized approach to broadening their "sphere of influence" will extend their goodwill and improve their opportunities for growth and long-term stability. Your inventory is organized...your accounting is organized your sales effort is organized. Doesn't it make good sense to organize your public relations so that it's more effective?
Now for some concrete advice on how to work with the local media. After all, that's where the real payoff can be for the retailer. The process of working with newspaper editors, TV and radio news department, and the trade press isn't all that difficult. But it does mean that you have to make a conscientious effort. That fact alone deters many dealers from gaining editorial recognition.
Stores with specialized departments, facility designers, and consultants can become important sources of information for managing editors, city editors, furnishings editors, business editors, and trade publications. Every time you sell a large installation, have an important event, or speak before a group, let the editors know.
You'll be surprised how many times they'll print your stories, if the information is given to them. Generally, your story themes can include openings, open houses, client meetings, sales, anniversary celebrations, new display ideas, quality installations, speaking engagements, executive changes, and additions. But how do you go about gaining good publicity for your company?
1. Never write-off any of your activities as being of no interest to the media. Editors and reporters are interested in more things for their readers than you might imagine. The important thing is to get to know them and know how they like to receive information.
2. Include a photo of yourself, store, installation, or activity when you send in a story.
3. Don't be afraid to send in a story because you feel you can't write well. I know a lot of editors who would say the publicity material they receive from "professionals" is far from well-written. The key: get all of the basic information typed out for the editor. Basically, include "who, what, where, when, and why." Then, make certain you include your name and telephone number so the editor can reach you for further information. Also it wouldn't hurt to study articles that are printed to see how the editor presents information to his or her readers.
4. In addition to pictures, supply literature and background material which might assist an editor or reporter in preparing a story.
5. Know each editor and what kind of articles he or she is interested in receiving. The business editor and home furnishings editor are interested in vastly different subjects. Local business publications have different needs than do trade newspapers. An editor may pass your story to the right member of the staff, but a paper receives hundreds of story ideas a day, and an editor can't be your messenger to make certain the right person gets your story.
6. For good, local activities, you can plan ahead for your press coverage. Call or send a note to the editor far enough in advance to explain what will be going on. See if they or one of their people would be interested in covering the event. If not, write up the story for the editor for a follow-up article.
7. If the event doesn't lend itself to a lengthy write-up, send the editor a photo with a detailed caption. If the photo is interesting enough, it will be printed and may reap even better coverage for you. When you send in a photo, tape the caption to the bottom of the picture and include your name and telephone number.
8. Don't worry if your first write-up isn't printed. Professional public relations people don't always score the first time either. If you don't succeed the first or second time around, keep trying. It can make a big difference in your business.
Whether your store is in a city of 4,000 or 4,000,000, an editor can't cover everything in the city himself. Whenever they find an articulate, well-informed professional, they will look to him or her for assistance in preparing stories for the newspaper. But there are also dangers for you when you venture into the editorial arena. Most editors will agree that much of the editorial material they receive is poorly conceived and badly executed. Here are some thoughts which can save you some anguish and save editors time and effort.
1. Many publicity stories are written for one reason, to sell products; and because of this, phony stories are sometimes prepared for the editor. You may get written up once by using such a trick, but probably never again. Give the editors honest news or remain silent. The editor wants to know that the information you give them is real, and, if it is, he or she will work with you to develop more stories.
2. Don't pressure editors. Treat them as professionals. You needn't call an editor every time to tell them you're sending a story, then call them afterward to see if they received it. Send the story, and if they want additional information, they will call you.
3. Be aware of an editor's deadlines and leave them alone during those periods. For evening papers the deadline times are usually 10 a.m. to noon, and for morning papers the deadlines are 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. The editor is under a lot of pressure during these times, and the last thing they need is a a telephone call from you.
4. Don't ask an editor for a clipping of the article as it was printed. If you can't afford the price of the paper or publication, then it is doubtful that your store or operation will be in business much longer anyway.
5. Don't try to write the "great American novel." Put the facts down on paper clearly and concisely, and mail them to the editor. If they need more information, they will call you. Let them do the real writing.
6. You don't have to hand deliver every story to the editor. It just takes up their time. If the story is good, it will stand on its own merits.
7. Use a little common courtesy when dealing with editors...they aren't doctors who can be called any time of the day or night. An editorial friend of mine has told me that he gets calls at home and on vacation from people concerning articles which have been submitted. One time, he was even called when he was sick in bed by someone concerned about their story. I doubt that the story ever got printed.
When you send a news release to one of the department editors of the newspaper, how much of it is used (or whether it will be used at all) depends on things entirely out of your control. Factors such as space restrictions or an unusual volume of news can kill even a good local story. Disasters such as the Space Shuttle explosion can push your story right off the page. Often a story will get as far as being set in type and wind up in the "overset." Sometimes the stories can be updated and used, but more often they are too old.
Keep your stories brief and to the point. The publication only has so much editorial space, and a news release longer than one or maybe two pages is less apt to be looked at closely or be published. Writing a ream on your operation's activities may make you feel good, but it doesn't impress the editor in the least.
Talk to newspaper department editors. They'll all say the same thing ... competition for space is keen. Your story has to stand on its own merits. Oh, certainly good contacts and friends on the publication can help you with a not-so-good or mediocre story once in a while. But if that's all you have to offer, your "friend" or "contact" will soon disappear. Once you have something you think is worthwhile, give it to the editor and let them work with it.
Editors are pros. They'll pick up interesting nuggets and develop them. You don't have to lead them. Once you've developed a nose for news in your operation and have worked with editors a little, you'll learn how well it can pay off. The key is getting to know your editors and what kind of information they're interested in printing. From then on, all you have to do is keep the editors informed, and you'll keep your operation in front of readers in your area...and readers are your prospects, customers.
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